ASTC-NSW day 2: Preparing your documentation for translation

This weekend I attended the ASTC-NSW 2010 conference in Sydney. These are the notes that I took during a session by Sarah Forget. All the credit for the content and ideas goes to Sarah. Any mistakes are mine.

Sarah Forget presented a session on preparing your documentation for translation, titled “How to write for translation: New challenges for the writer”.

Introducing the topic

In the course of her work, Sarah has seen many mistranslations. Most of those were caused by ambiguous English structures.

The non-functional literacy rate in Australia is 46%.

You need to know who the translators are, as an audience. This helps you to know how to write for them.

More than just translation, localisation includes a customisation of the message in the target language and culture.

  • Formatting
  • Regional settings
  • Layout

As well as being well written, your content must be well structured, to optimise the translation process.

Getting to know how the translators work

Translators use CAT tools (computer-assisted translation tools), which include the following functionality:

  • Translation memory – Stores strings of text in the source and the target language. This helps the translator to keep consistency across their translations.
  • Terminology manager – Stores concepts (“terminological values”) in two or more languages, including synonyms, antonyms, definitions, and so on. Example of such a tool: MultiTerm.

Sarah showed us a video of a translator’s desktop with the software in action while the translator was working. It showed how the translation memory prompts the translator with existing translations for each phrase, or with translations that are similar but not exact.

The formatting and layout of the source document affects the processing done by the translation memory tool. For example, tabs can be mistaken for an end of paragraph.

If you use consistent terminology and Plain English, the terminology manager (MultiTerm) can find the match easily. As a by the way, MultiTerm also educates you about what Plain English is.

Once the translator has translated a term, they can then choose to add it to the terminology manager.

The translator can save the document as a bilingual document, containing both languages so that they can continue working on it or make corrections after review. When the work is complete, they save the document in the target language.

Tips from Sarah

These are just some of the tips Sarah gave us:

1) Assume that your text will increase in size by approximately 30% after translation. To manage this expansion, add extra space in the original document, such as after paragraphs or in tables.

2) Avoid manual formatting.

  • Use the templates, styles and automated capabilities provided by your authoring software.
  • You don’t even need to include the table of contents for translation, if it’s automatically generated.
  • Don’t add spaces, line breaks and so on. Manual line breaks, tabs and spaces will limit the efficiency of your CAT tool.
  • Avoid manual hyphenation, because the conventions are different in different languages.
  • If you take care with this sort of thing, then there will be no work for you to do when you get the document back from translation.

3) Use consistent and clear terminology throughout a single document, or even better throughout the documentation of the entire company.

  • Avoid jargon, colloquialism and regional language.
  • A good way to manage this is to create a glossary, defining the terms to use and those not to use. You can then also send this glossary to the translator.

4) Write sentences that can be understood without context. For example, this sentence is almost impossible to translate: “How is it used.” The pronoun “it” needs to be replaced by the masculine, feminine or neutral pronoun depending on the target language.

5) Ensure there is no ambiguity in the sentences. This sentence is an example of ambiguity: “Remove the part using the filter”. Do you use the filter to remove the part, or do you remove the part that uses the filter?

6) Include the articles in a sentence. Don’t leave them out, because they are often necessary to clarify meaning.

7) Don’t stack your nouns. Stacked nouns are particularly hard to translate. A comment from the floor caused some laughter there: “It’s called a ‘noun sandwich’!”

8 ) Keep the subject and verb close to each other. (Being technical writers, you’re probably wondering why there’s an extra space between the 8 and the bracket at the beginning of this line. It’s because WordPress is kindly converting 8 plus bracket to an icon of a smiley with sunglasses. 8) )

9) Use the appropriate punctuation.

10) Spell out acronyms, at least once at the beginning. Also tell your translators how to handle acronyms in the translated text.

11) Give your translators some contextual information. This affects the translation, because different terms mean different things depending on the industry or other context.

12) Send only signed-off documents to the translators. Otherwise you’ll end up paying for re-translation.

13) Create a working communication channel with your translator. They will have lots of questions to ask. This is important for a qualitative translation.

Recommended book

Sarah recommends a book: The Guide to Translation and Localization – Communicating with the Global Marketplace. You can request it from LingoSystems. They will send it free of charge.

My conclusion

This was a very useful session. At Atlassian, where I work, we don’t yet optimise our documentation for translation, but it’s something we’re going to need to do very soon. It’s also something I’m interested in personally. Thank you for all the information and tips, Sarah.


About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 1 November 2010, in ASTC, language, technical writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the write-up. Lots of good tips here. I hadn’t even thought of the TOC problem.

    on #8, you said something about auto-smiley conversion. You can turn this off by going to Settings > Writing. See the Formatting section near the top.

  2. Has anyone used an automated translation service?

  1. Pingback: ASTC (NSW) 2010 wrapup « ffeathers — a technical writer’s blog

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